What is Separation Anxiety?

How to manage, modify and mitigate behaviors related to separation

By Jodie Havens, Certified Professional Dog Trainer

Staying at home for an extended period of time can be a great excuse to spend more time with your dog. But don’t expect your dog to be happy about you going back to your usual routine and spending longer periods of time away. They may not understand why all of the sudden you’re leaving again.

While you’re away, your dog may begin to show signs of distress, like vocalizing, destroying the house or even show signs of potty-training regression or self-harm. These signs of anxiety when left alone can be caused from Isolation Distress (ID) or Separation Anxiety (SA).

Dogs with Isolation Distress exhibit behaviors that subside as long as someone—anyone—is with them. They may even be fine with another dog or animal in the home with them. Dogs with Separation Anxiety show distress when their one particular person is gone. They could be home with others in the family but still show symptoms.

It is always recommended to work with a certified animal behaviorist to address Separation Anxiety. (Be aware, dogs who are bored or have bad house manners may behave like they have Separation Anxiety. Typically, you would need to set up a hidden camera to catch your dog’s antics while you’re away and share the video with your pet’s behaviorist.)

In addition, PetSmart has introduced a new 3-week Stress Less™ Program to help pet parents learn skills and behaviors to help reduce their dog’s anxious behaviors related to separation. The program will teach prevention and management skills for unwanted behavior and will help your dog feel more secure and confident when they’re home without you.

To help prevent the onset of Separation Anxiety, here are some tips:

  • If your dog is normally in a crate or contained space while you’re away, practice leaving them there for short periods of time even while you are home. This will help establish a routine.
  • Practice leaving for short periods of time, if possible. Go for short walks around the block often. Not being home, even for short periods, can help create a sense of normalcy and help prevent your dog from forming an unhealthy attachment to you.
  • Keep leaving the house and coming home low-key events. Building excitement during your leaving increases your dog’s excitement and can amplify symptoms. Also, don’t make your return a party. Say a quick hello and do not interact until your dog is calm.
  • Desensitize the cues that signal you’re leaving. We tend to create patterns of behavior before leaving the house which dogs pick up on and that can cause a buildup of tension in your dog and ultimately be a precursor to Separation Anxiety. Typical cues can be:

    • Getting your coffee / making breakfast
    • Putting on your shoes
    • Grabbing your keys
    • Walking to the front door
    • Jiggling the handle of the front door
    • Opening the front door

    To desensitize your dog, present the above cues but do NOT actually leave. This will help undo the conditioning between the cues and you leaving. To take it a step further, pair the “leaving” cues with positive rewards, so your dog responds to your “leaving” cues with the excitement and expectation of a reward rather than the anxiety and expectation of you leaving.

  • Sign up for our new Stress Less™ Program

Once you return to your normal routine, here are a few more tips:

  • Provide regular mental and physical exercise. Excessive energy buildup can make symptoms worse.
  • Use calming products like plug-ins and sprays to help create a sense of calm
  • Sign up for the new Stress Less™ Program
  • Work with a PetSmart Accredited Trainer privately or sign up for Virtual Dog Training for additional assistance and personalized sessions

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